“The Monk of Mokha” is a real-life story of the American Dream by way of Yemen, with a stop at the Hills Brothers coffee logo.
Readers will cheer for Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of Dave Eggers’ most recent book, a biography. A U.S. citizen born in 1988, Mokhtar grew up with six siblings in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin district, which “taught you to think quick, talk fast. You had to listen and assimilate.” Mokhtar shrugged off school, preferring wily self-study.
Mokhtar’s first after-school job at a Banana Republic store taught him how to dress and carry himself so that he was “trusted and wanted around.” This led to better retail positions, more access, higher paychecks. But “there was no precedent and there was no money” for college. Called “mister” and “sir” around town, “he went back home, to sleep on the top bunk of a two bunk set in his family’s one-bedroom apartment,” Eggers writes.
Mokhtar takes classes, gets involved in local politics, sells cars, and borrows money to buy a laptop. But at 25 years old, bursting with ambition, he’s working as a doorman at a luxury high rise.
A friend texts “pick a direction for your life.” She suggests that “across the street there’s a statue of a Yemeni dude drinking a big cup of coffee.” Maybe that Hills Brothers logo from 1906 is a sign. Mokhtar directs his scattered energies toward one thing: a coffee importing business.
Mokhtar learns that coffee originated in Yemen. “Rogue adventurers” moved the crop around the globe, stealing coffee cherries and seedlings, starting in the 1500s. This included an emissary of Brazil seducing the French colonial governor’s wife, who “provided him with a bouquet of flowers, inside of which she’d hidden enough coffee cherries to start a farm of his own.”
Coffee has “quite possibly the most complex journey from farm to consumption of any foodstuff known to humankind.” There’s also tasting; a Q grader is “something akin to what a sommelier is to wine, a grand master is to chess,” Eggers writes.
When Mokhtar travels to Yemen to sample and buy beans, it’s 2014. The country is unstable, but in just a few months “it was as if some almost-unknown militia from near the Oregon border swept down and took over Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, all without any significant resistance.” A major airport shuts down, then roads flood with checkpoints manned by children with guns.
Although this section of the book is especially perilous, the entirety of “The Monk of Mokha” — Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s life — reads like a harrowing adventure story. Readers will hold their breath for the charming, brilliant child of the Tenderloin. They will want Mokhtar to get the job, secure the funding, pass the Q grader test. They’ll want him to find his way to Yemen, then desperately want him to make it safely home to San Francisco, high-grade beans in tow.
Eggers interviewed Mokhtar over three years and hundreds of hours. The book is a wonder: dense with details, yet light and often funny (in Mokhtar’s first euphoric moment at a Yemeni coffee farm, he embarrassingly mistakes an olive tree for the beloved coffee plant he’s been studying).
Among Eggers’ long list of award-winning work are his own memoir (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) and dystopian fiction (“The Circle”). But a decade ago Eggers wrote both a novelization of the life of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng (“What Is the What”) and an extensively researched biography of what happened to Syrian-American Abdulrahman Zeitoun during Hurricane Katrina (“Zeitoun”).
These men, like Mokhtar Alkhanshali, triumphed against unimaginable poverty and violence.
In his introduction, the author calls his newest subject one of the “U.S. citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds, between nations that produce and those that consume. And how these bridgemakers exquisitely and bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome.”
Eggers has an urgent message about resilience and a new American Dream, and his literary skills make it easy to hear.
Holly Silva is a St. Louis editor.